The Pandemic Might Be Bringing Some Employees Closer Together

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While the pandemic comes with no shortage of bad news, some HR professionals are witnessing unprecedented connectivity among their employees. Today’s guest is one such professional. While the pandemic has caused many challenges for her employees, the landscape of work has enabled employees to make concrete connections with one another.

Meet Erin Lau, Manager of HR Services at Insperity.

How did you get into HR?

I started right out of college. I worked for Nordstrom as an HR assistant, which was an entry-level HR role. I was immediately able to combine two of my passions: business and my genuine love of people. I quickly realized it was a profession where I was able to apply both areas of interest and it grew into various roles within the HR realm, both within and outside of the company. With each HR opportunity, I have been able to dig deeper into HR’s strategic role and see how the people side of the business impacts its overall performance and productivity. Being able to do that and have a positive impact on a company is very rewarding.

I have been blessed with roles that have allowed me to do that and stretch my creative side, too. I think people often believe HR is just the foundational do’s and don’ts of how to conduct themselves in the workplace. But it has changed to be more about understanding each individual contributor and how he or she impacts the total organization. Being able to pick that apart and dissect it for companies is rewarding. At Insperity, we have the ability to work closely with our clients, so we have exposure to various industries. I have had quite a fulfilling career here because I have the opportunity to work with a variety of businesses and address their unique challenges.

Speaking of development, I think the pandemic has created a new focus on the employee. What has your interaction been with that?

I work with, and we support, thousands of small businesses and their C-level executives at Insperity. It’s been eye-opening to understand how now, more than ever, it’s important to look at the whole employee since personal and professional lives are intertwined. Business owners and leaders have to take a step back and look at how they support their employees.

Business owners haven’t had to work through the dynamics of employees working from home and supporting their family and childcare needs. In order to retain those employees, they have to take a more empathetic approach. That’s been an adjustment for a lot of leaders who aren’t used to operating in that realm. It’s typically been, “This is what we need from you for the company’s sake, and you either do it or you don’t.” But now, leaders are in a place where they don’t have the luxury of rebuilding their entire workforce.

Many employers need to operate with the people they have, which requires them to take a step back, pivot, and learn what each employee needs. Does that mean shifting workers’ schedules from what they normally are and being flexible or allowing them to continue to work from home, even if you want them to be in the office? Being agile is new, and employers are navigating what that means at the personal employee level, as well.

Would you say that was immediately obvious to leaders or something that still had to, at that point, be explained to them?

I think it’s still a work in progress. At the beginning of the pandemic, our clients experienced a reactive phase. This quickly turned into, “OK, this looks like it’s going to be more long-term.” That meant leaders reevaluating how they interact with their employees and keep them motivated to prevent burnout.

People were working long hours right out of the gate and in new environments. I think for some leaders, depending on their leadership style, it was an easy transition. But in our experience, it has been most challenging to get leaders to approach their employee base in a different way.

It’s not like HR experts haven’t been telling leaders that this is how they should be treating their employees all along. It’s a little frustrating that it took something as serious as the pandemic to get some of them to see things differently.

Exactly. It goes both ways, too, because you’ve got CEOs, for example, who, all of a sudden, are finding themselves at home with their kids.

You’re seeing a real side to people on every level. I think that in and of itself has allowed people to be more authentic and true to who they are as individuals. There is this mentality of “Everybody is in this together,” which has formed this commonality; you don’t have to stress as much if your dog is barking in the background because a lot of people on the other line can probably empathize. You’re seeing colleagues in a new light.

Based on our experience with clients, it allows us to break down the barrier of our work self and home self. Studies show that people are more productive if they’re able to really bring their whole creative self, which allows them to be who they are.

What’s something over the last 6 months that you’re proud of having accomplished?

I’m proud of being able to have the team I directly support closer than ever. We’ve been able to unite a team that’s located in different areas, and we are operating 100% virtually, with no in-person interaction. It’s been great to know that the strength of their bonds, teamwork, partnership, and collaboration is as strong as, if not more than, it’s ever been.

I’m proud to be able to build the character in individuals, given the stress and increased workloads. I think it’s a testament to individuals’ work ethic, their dedication, and their ability to connect on a personal level and really understand what’s going to motivate each person.

That’s been a common theme with clients who have been successful.  They have taken a step back to evaluate and ask, “OK, these are trying times, but what’s worked well, and what are we doing well?” And it’s been an opportunity to reset and slow things down to some degree. I think to your point, we wouldn’t have that opportunity if we were just going, going, going like we were. It’s allowed us to reevaluate what is working and reset expectations.

Absolutely.

For a business, it’s important to do that. It’s important to look at things with a fresh perspective and through a new lens. As a society, I don’t believe we do that on a regular basis, and it’s been a gift, to some extent.

Based on your interaction with your clients, what’s your sense? Do you think we can continue to do things this way? Do you think we can keep on keeping on, or do you think maybe the other shoe is going to drop at some point?

I think the other shoe may drop at some point. We’re social creatures, and the dynamics of managing personal and professional obligations under one umbrella is a challenge. What we hear a lot of times is that this lifestyle isn’t sustainable, such as homeschooling your kids while working full time. Maintaining that load on a long-term basis will wear on individuals’ stamina and endurance.

For many, creative collaboration is built on interaction and creating relationships. And although there are wins, like the one I just described about how teams are closer than they’ve ever been, there’s still going to be the need, at some point, to have human interaction. I think trying to navigate it all is challenging for most.

I’ve been talking with a lot of experts about the mental health concerns surrounding the pandemic. Is that something you have been talking about?

Yes, definitely. We’ve talked quite a bit about that. I’m not an expert to be able to weigh in on the mental health piece, but you do know your employees’ behaviors. We’re seeing employees retreat to their natural state, and that is obviously different for each person. But the more time you spend in “isolation,” the more likely you are to be your natural self.

And for those who struggle with being alone, it does have an impact, which is apparent in their behavior. Maybe they’re more agitated, less patient with clients, or more emotional. We are taking a closer look at our employees and placing their mental health top of mind. We have assembled numerous resources from different partners to provide mental health services for our employees.

We’re making sure to check in more regularly with Insperity employees and we are passing that message along to our clients for their awareness. It’s within an employer’s realm to have a conversation with employees and if they share that they’re struggling or having a hard time, make them aware of the company’s resources, not to diagnose them—that’s not an employer’s role—but to speak to the behavior and how it applies to their job performance. We’re focusing our efforts on arming clients with information they can use and then provide to their employees.

Is there anything you’re personally looking forward to over the next months?

We are in the midst of our peak busy season. This is typically the time when business owners are planning for the new year, evaluating their human resources function and renewing their company’s medical benefits. So, for us, this is a busy time because companies are looking at what’s to come in 2021.

I personally look forward to continuing to work together as a company in the busiest time of the year to further improve our company’s workflow. It shows me that we’re in a healthy place in terms of staying current and bringing new ideas to the table, despite everything that’s going on. No matter if we are in-person or remote, we’re still focused on the success of our clients and driving the business forward. It’s a renewed sense, and it’s not talking about COVID for a minute—we discuss things we can impact. And that’s exciting.

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